“A few months ago, as I walked onto the Cornerstone (CCO) rooftop garden, I could hear beautiful music. One of our shelter guests, a mom with five children, was practicing her saxophone for church on Sunday. What an unexpected gift to hear her music flowing out from among the herbs, flowers, and veggies! It felt almost magical. She and her children came to CCO because her husband was deported, which meant that the kids lost their dad, and she lost her husband, along with the majority of their income and their home. She and her children were so involved in the garden. It’s been fabulous watching families make the garden their own and care for it too.”
– Laura Thiessen, CCO rooftop gardener
The CCO Rooftop Garden has almost completed its third season of producing a variety of vegetables, fruit, herbs, microgreens, and flowers for CCO shelter guests. The benefits go far beyond the bountiful produce. The Rooftop Garden is a place for women and children to play, plant, grow, harvest, witness birds and insects, and relax in a safe outdoor space. The rooftop garden has been the fulfilled dream of Laura Thiessen or, as the kids call her, “The Garden Lady.” Laura has worked with fellow plant enthusiasts and shelter guests to make the Rooftop Garden a haven of life amid the concrete and brick of Chicago.
The garden always needs seeds and supplies. In April, one special shelter guest donated many seed packets and helped with planting. Laura said, “She gave me seeds for flowers, squash, and pepper that she bought at the dollar store. Once they sprouted and were ready for planting, she helped with that, too. She got a job and spent less time in the garden, but her plants are still in a special area just for her.”
In May and June, shelter guests can get their hands dirty planting. Guests from the Naomi Shelter for Women often help transplant the seedlings into growing totes on the rooftop. Children from the Hannah Shelter for Families join in and learn about gardening while having fun in the dirt.
Throughout the summer, Laura and fellow gardener, Martha Alicia Montes, host a Tea Time in the garden. Tuesdays are for the single women at Naomi Shelter. Laura said, “Marta often does an art project with the ladies. One project was wind catchers made from recycled cans. We hung them on the pergola. They were so pretty. Sometimes we play music and dance in the garden. It’s pretty relaxed. We want everyone to enjoy the green space and have fun.”
Thursday morning Tea Time in the garden is reserved for moms and children at CCO. “We grow three types of mint and make it into iced tea with honey. Sometimes, we gather echinacea or wildflowers to put in our tea. We also have a snack like watermelon, popsicles, or fruit salad. The kids always come running. They are curious and ask so many questions. Often, they want to water the plants or help in any way. I’ll show them how to pick the mint. If they’re upset, I tell them they can go to the mint plants and brush the tops with their hands, smell their minty hands, and take deep breaths. A lot of children stay at CCO. It can be pretty chaotic but a lot of fun! I’ve taught the kids to save seeds from the foods they eat and plant them. The garden draws the kids. They still pick green tomatoes. I try to teach them how to be a garden protector, not a garden picker. They’re learning!” Laura says with a chuckle.
A family of golden finches has made a home in the garden. Laura has carefully chosen seeds and plants that attract birds and pollinators to the rooftop garden. Butterflies, bees, and other pollinators are frequent visitors of the flowers on the CCO roof. An enclosure had to be built to protect the black swallowtail butterflies from the birds. The children especially love seeing the butterflies in their habitat. The explosion of plant, bird, and insect life is a testimony to the importance of the CCO rooftop garden for humans and creatures alike.
“One day, we were in the rooftop garden during Tea Time. Several of the ladies just started talking about some personal and painful events. They were so vulnerable, sharing stories filled with heartache. I think something about being in the garden, outside in a green space together; it is therapeutic. We just listened. I felt honored to be entrusted with their stories. One of those ladies went on to get a job working in a large urban garden. She still has plants on the rooftop. The other ladies take pictures of her vegetables and send them to her so she can see that they are growing.”
“People come to CCO to get help. Sometimes, they move on fast. Even if their time at CCO is short, one moment can be important and special. Hopefully, when people look over their lives, they will know that Cornerstone gave them real support, compassion, and opportunity for a change. I’m grateful that the garden can be part of the good things happening at CCO. I want to thank all the women and children who helped in the CCO Rooftop Garden this year. I would also like to thank two important organizations, Seed Money and Awesome Foundation, for their financial support. This unique place of life, growth, and hope would not be possible without your generosity!”
-All quotes by Laura Thiessen, as told to Beth Nicholls
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